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Adjusting to American Culture While You Study at College

What do you need to know about American culture at a US college?

Calendar Dates

When writing calendar dates, Americans list the month first, the day second and the year third. Therefore 12.7.2009 would be December 7, 2009 in America but July 12, 2009 elsewhere in the world.

Forms of Address

Address a person by his or her title when you are in a formal situation or you would like to acknowledge the respect you have for that person. Titles include “Dr.” for both a medical doctor and a scholar with a PhD, “Mr.” (pronounced “mister”) for men, “Mrs.”(“missus”) for married women and “Miss” for unmarried women. If you are unsure of a woman’s marital status, use “Ms” (“miz”). Some women prefer this title in anyway.

People of equal standing (for example, classmates or co-workers) generally refer to each other by their first names only, or in some cases by their last names only. When in doubt, ask a person by what name he or she would prefer to be called.

Grades

Grades in almost all colleges and universities are based on a letter and a percent. An “A” is the best while an “F” is the worst.

You may also be awarded a “plus” or “minus” after your letter grade. For example, an A+ is better than an A, which is better than an A-. However, an F is never paired with either a plus or minus.

Grades and percentages generally follow the chart below. However, schools and even individual professors often vary this slightly.

A : 90 to 100 percent correct
B : 80 to 89
C: 70 to 79
D: 60 to 69
F: below 60

Grade Point Average

Grade point averages, or GPAs, are calculated on a four-point scale.

A = 4
B = 3
C = 2
D = 1
F = 0

Pluses and minuses are calculated into a GPA. However, an A+ will rarely earn you a higher GPA than an A. The more credits a course is worth, the more that course’s grade will affect your GPA.

GPA’s are indicated with two or three numbers—for example, a 2.75 GPA or a 3.5 GPA.

You will receive a GPA after every quarter or semester of classes. Each quarter or semester’s new grades also will be calculated into your cumulative GPA.

Greetings / Small Talk

Americans typically greet each other with a “hi” or “hello” along with a short question, such as “How are you?”

A standard reply would be, “Good. How are you?” These questions don’t require a long response, and the person asking the question won’t expect an answer of more than a few words.

“Small talk” is the phrase used to describe the conversation between two people who don’t know each other very well. Good topics of small talk include the weather and the classes you are taking. Religion, politics and other controversial subjects are off-limits until two people know each other very well.

Handshaking

People generally shake hands when they meet for business, and often they shake hands again at the end of a meeting. This can occur if the people are meeting for the first time or have known each other for years.

When shaking hands, avoid gripping your colleague’s hand too tightly. Alternatively, don’t make your hand too limp. A firm handshake is best.

Handshakes aren’t common among young people, with a few exceptions. For example, a college student could shake the hand of a person of seniority or in a formal situation, such as a job interview. Always shake a person’s hand if it is offered.

Holidays

Many workers and students have the following nationally-celebrated holidays off:
New Year’s Day (Jan. 1)
Memorial Day (last Monday in May)
Independence Day (July 4)
Labor Day (first Monday in September)
Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday in November)
Christmas (December 25)

Your university or workplace may or may not be closed on the following holidays:
Martin Luther King, Jr Day (third Monday in January)
Presidents Day (third Monday in February)
Columbus Day (second Monday in October)
Veterans Day (November 11)

Few people receive time off for the following holidays, but they are often celebrated with parades or marked by other special events:
Easter (a Sunday in March or April)
St. Patrick’s Day (March 17)
Halloween (October 31)
Election Day (first Tuesday after the first Monday in November)

Meals

Americans eat three meals: breakfast, lunch and supper. “Dinner” can also be used to refer to either the second or third meal of the day.

Breakfast is eaten in the morning, before work or school. Lunch is served sometime between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Supper is typically the largest meal of the day and is generally eaten between 5 and 8 p.m. College cafeterias that accept student meal plans are generally open for a limited number of hours each day– check with yours to be sure you know when to eat!

Some people on Sundays combine breakfast and lunch and eat “brunch.” This is typically offered in the late morning or early afternoon.

Smoking

In some cities, smoking is now forbidden in places where it used to be common, such as bars. Ask others about the local smoking laws, or pay attention to what others do. Some cities also prohibit smoking outdoors within certain distances of buildings.

If you want to smoke in a car or home, always ask the owner if smoking is permitted there.

Telephone

Answer the telephone by saying, “Hello, this is John” or simply “Hello.” A person who lives only with family and not roommates may answer by saying, “Hello, this is the (last name) residence.”

The person who is calling will likely respond with, “Hello, is (Jane) there?” or “Can I speak with (Jane)?”

In the US, telephone numbers are 10 digits. The first three numbers are called the “area code” and indicate from what part of the country the caller is located.

Temperature

Americans use the Fahrenheit scale to calculate temperatures. Water freezes at 32 degrees.

To change Fahrenheit temperatures into Celsius, subtract 32 from the temperature and multiply the result by 5/9. For example, 100 degrees Fahrenheit would be about 38 degrees Celsius.

To change Celsius temperatures into Fahrenheit, multiply the temperature by 9/5 and then add 32. For example, 21 degrees Celsius equals about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Time

Americans are punctual. Classes start on time, and you may hear a bell to mark the beginning and end of the class. Some professors take attendance at the beginning of class, so it’s best to be early.

If you are meeting someone or are invited to someone’s house, be no more than five minutes early or five minutes late. Arriving 10 minutes late requires an apology. If you will be more than 10 minutes late, you should call one of the people you are meeting.

An exception to this is if you are attending a very large party or you were told that you can arrive at any time.

Time Zones

The continental United States has four time zones. From east to west they are the Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones. Hawaii and Alaska are each in different time zones.

The Eastern time zone is five hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. The Pacific time zone is eight hours behind.

Most of the United States practices daylight savings time. Clocks “spring forward” one hour in the spring and “fall back” one hour in the autumn.

Tipping

You should give waiters and waitresses in restaurants tips. Customers generally leave between 15 percent and 20 percent of their total bill. If you’re not good at math, simply leave your server double the amount of tax you paid on the meal.

Tips are generally left one of two ways. You can leave the money on the table when you exit the restaurant. However, if you pay by credit card, you can fill out the special “tip” line on the receipt to tell the server how much to charge you.

Tips are unnecessary and not expected at fast-food restaurants.

Other people you may be called upon to tip include hairdressers and hotel workers.

Weather

The weather in the United States varies considerably based on your location, the season and the time of day.

In general, the southern part of the US is extremely hot in the summer, and the thermometer can easily reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This is especially true in the southwestern part of the country, where the US even has deserts. Night, however, can be cool, so you’ll still want to bring a jacket.

Northern states in the midwestern and northeastern parts of the country can be exceedingly cold in the winter, with several feet of snow and negative temperatures. Summer temperatures tend to be more moderate.

Almost anywhere you study, you’ll want to bring along at least a few items of clothing that will prepare you for snow, heat, wind and rain.